A nostalgic return for Neil Gaiman with The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Ineffable is a word that Neil Gaiman knows well. Avid fans will remember that in Good Omens, the master storyteller's collaboration with Terry Pratchett, the term was used to the point of hilarious excess. Twenty-three years after the publication of that novel -- Gaiman's first -- he's made a living out of creating transcendental universes for new fans and seasoned Gaiman-lovers alike. His newest world might be the most ineffable yet.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a homecoming of sorts for the writer, both in the book and Gaiman's own life. This latest venture marks his return to adult novels after penning the woefully underrated Anansi Boys in 2005.
Ocean is a mere 176 pages, certainly readable in only a few hours on a cozy, rainy day or out in the sun. But this is a work to be revisited, much like the nameless narrator who returns to his childhood home at the start of the novel.
He's doing what he does best here, infusing an overwhelming reality with flecks of fantasy and mystery. Don't mistake that fantasy for escapism though; when readers plunge into a Gaiman-borne universe, things are never as they seem. Gaiman crafts horror out of the most mundane objects (a silver shilling, for example) and makes the horrific into an inconvenience (like a much-desired comic just out of reach in a car with a dead man).
At once, readers are plunged into the foggy world of memory: a loved one at a funeral, the English countryside, and, most importantly, the things we know but don't remember. The narrator finds himself on autopilot towards a place he feels but can't quite articulate. There, he meets an elderly woman who reminds him of the old duck pond -- or was it an ocean? -- he frequented as a boy. In an instant, waves of memories crash back into his consciousness, and he's up to his neck in moments from the most defining time of his childhood.
The man becomes a boy of seven, so unpopular and bookish that no one comes to his birthday party. He retreats into literature, because "books were safer than other people anyway." Through a series of unfortunate financial events, his parents begin to lodge boarders, which leads to even more unfortunate events, and eventually the boy meets his 11-year-old neighbor Lettie Hempstock.
Lettie introduces the narrator to fields filled with cattails, a pond with waters that run deep as the sea, and her eons-old family homestead. There, Lettie lives with her mother and grandmother, each a magic-infused being that welcomes the small boy into a loving environment he's never quite known. Before he can get used to the feeling, a malevolent force from another universe invades the Sussex countryside, tearing him apart from his new friendship and his family.
Anyone who has read Gaiman's work will recognize familiar names, monsters, motifs, and the like from past works threaded through Ocean. Like forgotten friends, they pop up out of the blue, familiar and yet foreign. Truth be told, Ocean's plot of child-thrust-into-strange-world mirrors Coraline, Mirrormask, and The Graveyard Book, but this one has the wisdom of looking back at past events rather than looking forward to what might be. In Ocean, adults are as scared and lost as children, they just hide it better (or at least try to).
That said, longing for what once was doesn't prove exclusive to adulthood, either. When the going gets tough, the young narrator finds himself wishing for simpler times just as much as he does in old age. In the end, that's a luxury afforded to no one, and all of the characters must find peace with the lives they end up with.
There's no need to remind Gaiman fans to rush out to buy Ocean, as his social media accounts have featured him signing thousands of pre-order copies that have already shipped. However, for the unconverted: Gaiman's self-described best work (which should be enough recommendation alone) warrants the hype. You can't step into the same river twice, but thankfully you can (and should) dive into this Ocean again and again.